Israeli Newspaper Brawl Moving to the Internet

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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TEL AVIV — In a bid to supplant the two major English-language newspapers produced in Israel, Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most influential and widely read newspaper, this week unveiled Ynetnews.com, its long-awaited English-language Web site.

The centrist Yedioth is one of the three major Hebrew-language newspapers in Israel, along with Ma’ariv, a right-leaning tabloid, and Ha’aretz, a left-leaning intellectual broadsheet. In the last few years, all have decided to enter the English-language market, which historically has been dominated by The Jerusalem Post.

With the enlarged international audience for English-language Israeli news that has been opened by the Internet, Ynet’s entry into the market will make for a good old-fashioned newspaper brawl in the coming months. The terms and the winners of this competition could shape the way the international community, and especially American Jewry, receives information about Israel.

“Yediot going online is a major event,” said Gadi Taub, a lecturer in communications at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Taub did his graduate work in the United States. “When Ha’aretz went online, no one contemplated the weight of the change. But suddenly you begin to notice the changes, and how we’re all being brought into a global network.”

The arrival of Ynet comes at a tumultuous moment for English-language media in Israel. The Jerusalem Post, a 73-year-old publication known for its right-leaning politics, has become a shadow of itself during the cost-cutting reign of its last owner, and faces new instability with its new ones. Ma’ariv abandoned its own effort to create an English-language Web site this past December.

All this has allowed Ha’aretz to win over a growing audience with the English translation of its Hebrew-language newspaper and Web site.

Both Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post have print editions in Israel, and both have targeted the English-speaking audience in Israel as well as abroad. But the audience for print newspapers in Israel and outside has been shrinking. The Post says it sells 40,000 papers each day in Israel and the new owners recently have stopped printing the international edition in England, according to court papers.

The future appears to be on the Internet, and Alan Abbey, the managing director of the new Ynet Web site, is putting his focus on American Jews. “There are 6 million English speaking Jews in America, and only 200,000 in Israel,” he said.

Abbey grew up in Brooklyn, and before moving to Israel five years ago he worked for decades at American papers, most recently at the Albany Times Union. Ynet does not have a special section on world Jewry, as Ha’aretz and the Post do, but it does give the temperature in Fahrenheit rather than in Celsius and publishes a weekly cartoon strip.

Abbey has spent most of the past year designing Ynet and doing test translations. Ynetnews.com went online last Sunday with a test version sporting a modern, clean look that contrasts with the text-heavy homepages of Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. Ynet’s Web site includes a number of catchy features, including a group Web log on Israeli news, written by Ynet’s staff, and a “talk back” feature, which allows readers to respond in real time to every article.

But Ynet is entering a crowded field, with already heated rivalries. There are dozens of English-language Web sites providing news from Israel, and Ha’aretz and the Post have taken dominant positions. Both Ha’aretz and the Post claim that its Web site receives 1 million unique visitors each month, and each claims it is the most popular. Peter Hirschberg, editor of English Ha’aretz, says his Web site is “the most popular Web site in the Middle East in English.”

Calev Ben-David, managing editor of The Jerusalem Post, said that’s an “absurd claim,” adding: “My mother doesn’t even know there’s a paper called Ha’aretz.”

Hirschberg says the key to Ha’aretz’s success is that “what you get in the Hebrew is what you get in the English.” Indeed, some observers say direct translations have provided English readers with an insider’s view of Israeli politics that was not available before.

“I think it has had a real impact on the dialogue between American Jews and Israel,” said Ronald Zweig, professor of Israel studies at New York University. “Informed debate in this city and in Washington has improved out of sight.”

But Abbey, at Ynet, says that Ha’aretz’s style makes for more “inside baseball” than most American readers want.

On Monday the differences between the papers were evident in the headlines. Ha’aretz went with the erudite, in describing a conflict between Israeli Labor Party leaders: “Barak accuses Sharon of corruption, Labor of forsaking opposition role.”

Ynet shares the tabloid sentiments of its Hebrew sibling, and went with the punchier headline, “Barak, Peres Go at It.” The Jerusalem Post chose not to cover the Labor Party dispute, a domestic issue, and instead led the day’s news with an article about President Bush’s speech on the Middle East in Belgium. The managing editor says they are writing for “the American tourist who just stepped off the airplane.”

While many American readers still might never have heard of either Ha’aretz or Yediot, in Israel, Yediot and the Ynet Web site already assume a dominant position. It is generally agreed that the Yediot newspaper has about twice as many subscribers as its nearest competitor, Ma’ariv, with about 600,000 readers on Fridays.

Ynet’s authority comes partly from its general avoidance of an overt political position, and Abbey plans to stick with that. “The existing sites are too political. This isn’t about Hasbarah,” Abbey said, invoking the term the Israeli government has used for its public relations efforts. “This is for news.”

But Ynet’s dominance in Israel also comes from the sheer numbers of reporters it has on the beat. The Hebrew Ynet has 80 of its own reporters, and the Yediot print newspaper has another 200, including some of Israel’s most famous and respected commentators, like Nahum Barnea — all of whom will be translated.

Ha’aretz, on the other hand, only employs some 80 reporters. The Jerusalem Post, which has no Hebrew-language edition, has only about 40 full-time staff members doing editorial work, according to editor in chief David Horovitz.

But the number of people that Abbey has to translate all those reporters is less impressive. Where Ha’aretz has 80 staffers working exclusively on the English edition, Abbey has nine staff members who sit together in the midst of the Hebrew Ynet’s office on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Ynet’s bid for space on the Internet conjures up comparisons to Ma’ariv’s ill-fated effort to create its own English language Web site. Ma’ariv’s International Edition was online for a year, but Jonathan Ariel, former editor in chief, says the site was never funded sufficiently by its two American owners, who leased the content from Ma’ariv and still owe the employees thousands of dollars in back pay.

Ma’ariv also suffered from the lack of any name recognition among American Jews, which likely will be Ynet’s largest roadblock. Despite the recent rocky times at The Jerusalem Post, in the international media world, few names are as prominent as the Post’s, which was started in 1932 and was one of the first newspapers online in 1995.

In recent years the Post’s dominant position has fallen apart under the ownership of Hollinger, the media company owned by the now infamous Conrad Black, who was known for cutting from every corner, and desk. (Both Abbey and Hirschberg worked at the Post at one time.) There was hope that the tumult would end when the Post and its sister magazine, The Jerusalem Report, were bought for $13.2 million this past November, just a few weeks after Horovitz was named as the Post’s new editor in chief.

Horovitz, former editor of the Jerusalem Report, has steered the Post from the right to the center politically, and employees and outsiders alike say he wields an enormous amount of respect in the Israeli media world. But there came the fights between the two new owners: the right-wing Canadian media conglomerate, CanWest, and Mirkaei Tikshoret Limited, or MTL, an Israeli conglomerate with more experience in sports broadcasting than in newspapers. Since the purchase, MTL has been running the paper without any input from CanWest, according to the court filings. It has fired many of the top people on the business staff, and also has talked about selling the Post’s building in Jerusalem. Each owner has filed its own lawsuit, and in February the judge removed a temporary restraining order that CanWest originally won in January.

While the Post continues to simmer in controversy, Abbey has his game plan for taking on Ha’aretz. He is convinced that in order to win, Ynet will have to go beyond the news.

A response from Ha’aretz already has been drawn. On Tuesday, they launched a new youth site, called Underground, with music downloads and articles on Israeli skateboarding culture.






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